Democratic challenger to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais gets Wall Street Journal attention

In an article with a Chapel Hill, Tenn., dateline, the Wall Street Journal cites Mariah Phillips as an example of Democrats “fielding challengers for nearly every Republican U.S. House incumbent this year—a change from the last midterm election in 2014, when 36 Republicans won re-election without facing a general election opponent.” She’s running in the 4th Congressional District, now held by Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais.

In contrast, about 60 House Democrats won’t face a GOP opponent this November.

The goal is to maximize their opportunities if there is a surge in Democratic turnout, as has happened in some special elections. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to retake control of the House.

The strategy is similar to one employed in 1994 by former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, who recruited candidates nationwide to run for Congress. Republicans that year did catch a red wave, gaining 54 seats, enough to become the House majority. In 1995, they elected Mr. Gingrich as the first Republican speaker in 40 years.

…In Tennessee, Democrat Mariah Phillips recently attended a craft fair here. She chatted with volunteers at the party’s booth selling T-shirts that said “Marshall County Democrats Do Exist,” before diving into the crowd to shake hands, introduce herself to voters, and take selfies, if they asked.

She talked about gun policy. As a teacher she is opposed to guns in schools; as a Tennessean, she has a concealed-carry permit and says she is a “pretty good shot.”

A topic she avoids is the president, who won the district by 30 percentage points. “I’m not running against Donald Trump,” she said. “I’m running against Scott DesJarlais. If other people bring [Mr. Trump] up, I try to assess what they are saying—I might agree with what they are saying.”

If she prevails in her primary with Steven Reynolds, she will face Mr. DesJarlais, who beat Mr. Reynolds two years ago after winning 65% of the vote.

Ms. Phillips, a 41-year-old teacher and mother to five, concedes she is facing “an uphill battle. I’m going to have to fight every day to get what I need to make the connections, to build the support,” she said.

She spends six or seven hours a day calling potential campaign donors, sometimes followed by an event that night. One of her campaign slogans is “Have you met Mariah?” because her supporters are convinced she can win over skeptics if she can get an introduction.

Kevin Mackenzie isn’t one of them. “I’ve seen the Democrats moving so far to the left, it’s Looney Tunes,” said Mr. Mackenzie, 55, of Chapel Hill. Standing among craft booths and watching Ms. Phillips shake hands, he answered “I hope not” when asked if a Democrat could beat Mr. DesJarlais.

A spokesman for Mr. DesJarlais said the congressman was focusing on his own primary campaign and will turn his attention to the general after August.

While the candidates are long shots, the efforts by Democrats in rural areas to rebuild the party could pay off later, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“Elections are connected and I tend to think that effort exerted in a midterm election really pays off two years later,” he said.

Note: Phillips cites the article in a fundraising email, declaring it “proof of how much momentum we have gained.” Democratic candidates have also qualified in the six other Tennessee congressional district seats now held by Republicans.

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